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America Shouldn’t Need Black Athletes to Force Its Hand

The United States won’t make meaningful progress until those with the most power meaningfully change their actions, habits, and beliefs.

After the Milwaukee Bucks, in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, decided to protest their first-round playoff game against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday, the immediate future of the NBA was incredibly murky. What were the players hoping to accomplish with this protest? Was the bubble experiment over? Are the players even in a position to affect change? Only two days later, after various conversations among players, owners, and the league, the NBA and NBPA have announced basketball will resume beginning Saturday. The announcement didn’t reveal a sweeping commitment to antiracist causes from owners and the league some had hoped for when the strike began. This doesn’t mean the players gave in too quickly. Only that for too long, Black people have carried the burden of trying to fix America largely by themselves.

The NBA players’ strike took place on Aug. 26, 2020, the four-year anniversary of when Colin Kaepernick first protested police brutality and systemic racism during the national anthem. Kaepernick, despite being peaceful, eloquent and principled—the kind of protest (mostly white) society deems “acceptable”—immediately became a pariah for having the audacity to ask for police to stop disproportionately killing Black people. It took one year for a white NFL player to join Kaepernick in kneeling for its original intent. There were team-wide demonstrations in between that sometimes involved kneeling, but only as a response to some specific controversy. Even white players who said they understood where Kaepernick—who successfully sued the NFL for blackballing him—was coming from, did not join him. By 2019, only three NFL players were still kneeling, and all were Black.

The NBA, which halted its 2020 season due to the pandemic, returned this summer after mass civil unrest over the police killing of George Floyd. In recognition of the social climate, the league has allowed players to wear approved slogans on the backs of their jerseys. Teams kneel together during the anthem. And “Black Lives Matter” is painted on the court. While the players and coaches have been vocal and consistent in bringing attention to issues of police brutality, the rest of the league’s touches seem a little too corporate to be effective. Nike made the Black Lives Matter warm-up shirts. How come jerseys can have “Say Her Name” on the back, but not the name of Breonna Taylor, the woman who was killed by police while sleeping in her home?

While an entity like the NBA's allowing these slogans and promoting the team-wide demonstrations is itself a progression from 2016, it all seems a little too safe now. While public sentiment is far from 100% in favor of kneeling, or demonstrations, or admitting police brutality is real, these acts are nowhere near as jarring to the public as they were in 2016, when Kaepernick started. And that’s when more white athletes needed to be supporting their Black colleagues.

What else were players supposed to do on Wednesday? More accountability for police officers had become practically a daily theme during the season restart. And then a citizen releases a video of a Black man—in front of his children—being shot seven times in the back. Whether or not in that moment the Bucks were hoping to “fix” racism by not playing, they were justified in feeling they were not mentally prepared to play a basketball game.

But for the crowd that wants to know what players were hoping to accomplish, or what their demands are, or what solutions they’re offering up, the truth is, none of that is the players’ responsibility. Whether what happened Wednesday was a strike or an opportunity to mentally refocus, Black people have been bringing attention to the issues in this country long before anyone took a knee or sat out a playoff game. The burden shouldn’t be on Black people, or Black athletes, specifically, to continue to risk their social standing over issues others are being willfully ignorant about.

Since George Floyd was killed, people have been protesting in the streets. People also demonstrated over the deaths of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown. How much more attention can Black people bring to police brutality? NBA players may not have had concrete goals when they sat out playoff games, but that’s beside the point. On a superficial level, the league admits Black lives matter. So what are they willing to do about it?

Creating polling places, running PSAs and forming a social justice coalition are all fine. But for anyone asking what more owners can do outside of the 10-year, $300 million pledge announced at the start of August, there’s much more. How about putting more Black people in positions of power within their organizations and the league? How about treating Black coaches, like Nate McMillan, more equitably? How about ending their contracts with local police departments? How about ceasing donations to politicians who don’t recognize police brutality against Black people as a top-line issue? How about not making any loans to Jared Kushner’s business, or advising the Donald Trump–led White House, as Sixers co-owner Josh Harris did?

How can players ask owners to change their political beliefs? Because this goes beyond politics. This is a human rights issue. This country won’t make meaningful progress until those with the most power meaningfully change their actions, habits, and beliefs. Racism isn’t something that can be rooted out with a yearly $10 million donation. It’s going to take much more work than that, and people like the NBA’s largely white ownership group will have to start making some sacrifices.

The strike may not have brought about the radical change people like myself initially hoped for. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t necessary or successful. Ultimately, radical change shouldn’t be the responsibility of the Black athlete on the basketball court, or the Black person marching in the street. Our society is very fortunate to have those people. But they’ve already done their job and then some. They shouldn’t have to escalate their actions for those with more power to finally start to help.